MADRID (AP) – Lionel Messi may not have single-handedly guided Barcelona into Saturday's Champions League final against Manchester United, but the diminutive Argentine's sublime talent and knack for spectacular goals sometimes make it seem that way.
Messi has scored 52 goals in 54 games this season to become the first Spanish league player to top the half-century mark, although he was soon joined by Cristiano Ronaldo of Real Madrid.
But ''The Flea'' - as he is often referred to for his ability to buzz around defenders - has 11 goals to lead the tournament for a third straight season as the Catalan club narrows in on a second European Cup over that same period.
Barcelona's current run of success - some consider this team to be among the best ever - owes much to midfield playmakers Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta plus inspirational captain Carles Puyol.
But there is no doubting the club's fortunes are most closely linked to the Argentina forward, who has come to define a generation much in the way that greats like Alfredo Di Stefano, Diego Maradona and Johan Cruyff did.
''Messi is not just a detail, he's the best player in the world and that's more than a detail,'' Barcelona and Argentina teammate Javier Mascherano said. ''We have the good fortune to have him on our side and let's hope we can all help him. That doesn't mean that, because he is the best player in the world, he is going to decide the game on his own, but it's an advantage.
''At the very least, I prefer to have him on my side.''
Messi landed in Barcelona as a skinny 13-year-old but a growth treatment helped put him on his way to reaching the senior team by 2004, and he became more of a fixture in the next season at the age of 18. Messi has been a regular starter since 2006, when Barcelona won its second European Cup with a 2-1 victory over Arsenal in Paris.
Messi, who missed that final to injury, has scored 137 goals in 158 matches in three seasons under coach Pep Guardiola, and his total of 179 club goals leaves him trailing only Ladislao Kubala (194) and Cesar Rodriguez (235) on Barcelona's all-time scoring list, despite being just 23.
He also led the Spanish league in assists, with 19 this season, meaning he contributed to over 50 percent of the three-time defending Spanish champion's goals in the league.
While Messi is a phenomenon, he just tries to keep it simple.
''I'm going to go out and play like I always do,'' Messi said of Saturday's final. ''I hope I can score again (in the final). If not, I hope we still manage to lift the trophy.''
Messi doesn't just run defenses ragged with his precise control, speed on the ball, and a hunch for making a reflex dribble or cut back that leaves his markers on the floor. The two-time World Player of the Year can also challenge in the air as he did in Rome two years ago, when he looped a header home for the second goal in the 2-0 win over United.
United manager Alex Ferguson must find a way to keep Messi from running rampant.
''There is not one single way you can stop Messi,'' United defender Rio Ferdinand said. ''You have to do it as a team.
''All the games we have watched when anyone has played well against Barcelona, is when the whole unit plays well. You have to defend as a team, cut down their angles and their space - then you have a chance.''
United's players should also be wary of the well-rested Messi, who missed the last two league encounters after Guardiola rested his regulars. With Messi out, Ronaldo managed to move ahead of his season's total so far by getting to 53.
If Messi can achieve World Cup success with Argentina, he will strengthen claims to be up there with Pele and Maradona as the greatest of all-time. While he has this summer's Copa America to work on his Argentina story, first comes further club success.
''We'll see now what we have to do,'' Messi said in his customary subdued tone, the Rosario native sometimes cracking into a laugh but rarely letting the emotions inside creep out. ''Keep the ball, attack as we always do. Play our best.''